Rachel Carson's redwood dreams, and 50 years of "Silent Spring"

  • Carol Carson


As a child of the 1950s, I remember hot summer nights that were only relieved when a truck came by spraying a cool mist that would kill mosquitoes. We kids ran after that mist like it was the ice cream truck.

Several years later, with the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962, parents like mine learned that their children had been showering in toxic DDT, which would later show up in human fat cells.

“Silent Spring” broke like a tsunami across America, galvanizing an environmental movement to stop the poisoning of our air, land, and water.  But multinational chemical companies and even congressional members lambasted Carson, who had been a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She was called a “communist,” a “hysterical woman” and worse.

In her book, she described how DDT not only killed insects but also entered the food chain, so that even though DDT did not harm brown pelicans directly, the birds were becoming extinct because the toxin caused their shells to thin.  Whenever they tried to nest, their eggs shattered beneath them.

Scientists discovered that for decades, chemical companies had been discharging DDT into waterways, where it was readily absorbed by fish that were eventually eaten by pelicans and other birds. This caused some colonies of pelicans in California to shrink by more than 90 percent. Fortunately, pelicans are no longer on the endangered species list, and today, I can watch squadrons of them silently soar above me on the Santa Cruz shores close to my home.

Battling both her critics and a cancer diagnosis, Carson found some sanctuary in her cabin in the Maine woods. Meanwhile, her book and its shocking scientific revelations attracted powerful champions. They included President John Kennedy and two sons of the West, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, from Arizona, and David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, and a Californian. “Silent Spring” became the impetus for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and other landmark legislation. Carson was, as Udall put it, the“fountainhead of the environmental movement.”

I recently watched the inspiring program “A Sense of Wonder” on public television again. The title was taken from Carson’s book of the same name, which offers suggestions about how to involve children in nature. At the end, the actress playing the dying author says there are a few things left that she wants to do, and one of them is to see a redwood. I live among the giant redwoods, where a thin line of arboreal life hugs the northern Pacific Coast. And I wondered: Had Carson been able to make the journey West?

She had. In October 1963, the author flew to California, writing later that, “My mind is still filled with vivid pictures of that dream-like drift across the continents -- what a privilege we have to see it that way.” She noted flying over the snow-capped mountains of Denver and seeing Lake Tahoe and Yosemite below. “I guess one should drive across it several times to get to know it. But I have been impressed, thinking about water in relation to the landscape -- or especially the lack of it!” The words of a very wise woman.

She had come to California for a conference, and despite her terminal cancer, she intended to work, said David Brower in his book, “Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run.” But she also let Brower drive her to the shores of what is now the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. “In the lagoon just inland were perhaps 50 brown pelicans having a hell of a good time, perhaps celebrating the beginning of their recovery with a pelican ballet, on that sunny day,” Brower recalled.

When she returned home, Carson wrote to a friend about her experiences out West. Echoing the sentiments of those of us who find solace in nature, she said “I longed to wander off, alone, into the heart of the woods, where I could really get the feeling of the place, instead of being surrounded by people! And confined to a wheel chair! I was so grateful to the Browers for taking me. … but the one thing that would have made my enjoyment complete I couldn’t have.”

Six months later Rachel Carson died of breast cancer.

Her legacy, however, lives on. She challenged corporate power with courage, backed up her charges with incontrovertible science and she shared with us her gift of appreciating the outdoors. Here’s one of her suggestions: "One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself,”  'What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’"

Carol Carson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a naturalist and writer in the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains in California.

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